Voices: JK Rowling and the New York Times furore: How did we get here?

The New York Times this week published an article titled “In defence of JK Rowling”, defending the Harry Potter author’s reputation against accusations of transphobia.

Rowling has become a lightning rod for the anti-trans discourse that proliferates online.

The situation has now become a toxic brew of prejudice, misinformation and tragedy. How has it come to this?

Key to a lot of the arguments is Rowling’s insistence on the idea of biology defining gender, in the name of defending women against men posing as women in order to carry out abuse.

But as Judith Butler points out in an interview in The New Statesman: “The feminist who holds such a view presumes that the penis does define the person, and that ... the penis is the threat, or that any person who has a penis who identifies as a woman is engaging in a base, deceitful, and harmful form of disguise.

“This is a rich fantasy, and one that comes from powerful fears, but it does not describe a social reality ... The fact that such fantasies pass as public argument is itself cause for worry.”

There is much focus at the moment on the safety of trans people. The statistics are stark: a survey by Stonewall in 2018 found that two in five trans people had experienced a hate crime in the previous 12 months; by 2020, this figure had risen to four in five. Three days ago, trans teenager Brianna Ghey was killed in a park in Warrington in an attack that was described as “brutal and punishing”. It is not clear whether the fact that she was trans was a factor in the events in Linear Park, Warrington, but there has been widespread shock at her death.

Rowling has said that her stance has led to her being bullied and harassed online. No doubt this is true, but it would be worthwhile to look at the optics. She has 14 million followers on Twitter. In comparison, trans people make up less than 0.5 per cent of the population, or around 260,000 people, according to the last census.

And while the opinions that she holds may not in themselves be directly transphobic, her wide-reaching platform and social influence clearly hold the door open for the bullies to walk on through.

Recently, I posted on my Facebook feed a video of the philosopher and YouTuber Natalie Wynn – also known as ContraPoints – talking about JK Rowling and trans rights. The video is a two-hour-long, in-depth analysis from the viewpoint of a trans woman, and is in my opinion a nuanced and useful intervention.

Following my posting of the video, Facebook suggested I might be interested in a conversation between two writer acquaintances of mine who were saying some unpleasant things about trans people. I was immediately outraged, and primed myself at the keyboard to respond, but caught myself in the act before I reacted. Who had suggested that I look at this conversation? And more importantly, why?

Did the Facebook algorithm make no distinction between pro (and anti) trans rights discussion? Was it trying to nudge me into getting cross so that the discussion would blow up and create more engagement, so the site could try and sell more advertising space to the makers of cat beds?

Essentially, the algorithm was pushing me to get involved because it makes money from what it perceives to be a “hot topic”.

The trans “issue” is, in so many ways, a non-issue. What business is another individual’s deeply personal experience of gender to anybody but that individual? It only invites such widespread discussion because it provokes such extreme reactions in a social media landscape that monetises prejudice, and has become a useful topic to drive engagement.

Perhaps is why so many people choose to stay silent – non-engagement is sometimes the only option to protect the people we love. If JK Rowling really means it when she says that she supports trans people, she might do well to do the same.